Harps Symbolize Paraguay’s National Identity

By Rob Ballenger

Rural harpist Don Benitez is proud of his long fingernails

Rural harpist Don Benitez is proud of his long fingernails, which signify his role as a player of Paraguay’s beloved national instrument.

Arpa Roga harpists Kike Pedersen and Sergio Mendez

Arpa Roga harpists Kike Pedersen (left) and Sergio Mendez prepare for a duet. Their Paraguayan harps can be played seated or standing, thanks to the instrument’s telescoping legs.

Don Benitez retires to his general store's back room in the evening to play his Paraguayan harp.

A rural shopkeeper by day, 50-year-old Benitez retires to his general store’s back room in the evening to play his Paraguayan harp.

Lifelong harpist Don Benitez performs in his home

Lifelong harpist Benitez performs in his home, located in the rural town of Cazaapa-mi.

NPR.org, September 9, 2008 – The South American country of Paraguay has embraced the harp as its national instrument. There, the harp has evolved over the past four centuries into a unique, 36-string breed that’s played with the fingernails. The resulting sound is the music of Paraguay, particularly when the songs are the country’s traditional polkas. Harpists can be found from the concert halls of the capital city to homes throughout the countryside.

One rural town, Cazaapa-mi, reflects Paraguay itself: small, bucolic and modest. Equally unassuming is Cazaapa-mi’s tiny, wooden general store. It doubles as the home of its owner, 50-year-old Don Benitez. Inside, he stands behind a glass counter and offers a handshake, at which point it’s hard not to notice his very long fingernails. They reveal that Benitez is more than just a shopkeeper; he’s a musician. When the store closes, he retires to a back room, which holds little more than his bed, his refrigerator and his very large, ornate harp.

At just over 5 feet tall, the immaculately varnished wood instrument stands nearly as high as Benitez. To play it, he sits down, leans it back against his shoulder and cradles it as gently as he would a child. This harp is one of the few in the world played with the fingernails rather than the fingertips. The sound is part harpsichord, part guitar.

Benitez’s harp is uniquely Paraguayan because of the way it’s been shaped, literally and figuratively, by centuries of Paraguayan culture. The harps are derived from the Spanish harps of Jesuit missionaries who arrived 400 years ago. The missionaries taught indigenous Paraguayans how to play until the 18th century, when the Jesuits were recalled to Spain. Afterward, many frustrated players destroyed their harps and returned to life in the jungle. But they eventually began rebuilding the instruments, using only memory and local materials.

About 90 years ago, the instrument’s head was reconfigured and more strings were added. Paraguayan harps then became tools of soloists with the dexterity for complex melodies such as “The Bell Bird (Pajaro Campana),” one of Paraguay’s most recognizable folk songs.

Lifelong harpists like Benitez are not hard to find throughout Paraguay. In the capital city of Asuncion, an eight-hour bus ride from Cazaapa-mi, harpists pluck away inside performance halls, broadcast studios and even the airport terminal. Generations of Paraguayan harpists learned to play in Asuncion, from Benitez to today’s virtuosos.

Young musicians can be found at Arpa Roga, a family-run harp school inside a private home in Asuncion. Arpa Roga translates to “Home of the Harp” in a combination of Spanish and Guarani, Paraguay’s widely spoken indigenous language. Inside the school’s intimately lit performance room, the walls are lined with portraits of students, each posing proudly with his or her harp. Sergio Mendez, 17, and Kike Pedersen, 23, stand across the room from their photos. Side by side with their harps, their long fingernails dance across the strings in a song called “Island of Transparency.”

Both “Island of Transparency” and “The Bell Bird” are Paraguayan polkas. Unlike its European counterpart, Paraguayan polka generates a distinctive harmony by combining multiple rhythms. Paraguayan polka is the country’s most popular traditional music, often accompanied by guitars and accordions. But when the music resonates from the 36 strings of the harp, it is the sound of Paraguay.

To hear the music visit NPR:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93570364

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